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East Asian Immersion: Tianjin


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Once we were finished with Shanghai we only had nine days left to fill in our itinerary. We still wanted to spend a few days in Beijing at the end so we chose Tianjin to fill the gap since it was the largest city in eastern China we hadn't visited. In fact, Tianjin is the third largest city in China although it receives much less attention from travelers than Beijing, Shanghai, and many smaller cities. Internet searches didn't produce a long list of things to do in Tianjin, but we were confident that we could stay busy for three days in such a large city.

We arrived on a late flight from Shanghai and didn't get into our Airbnb until close to midnight. As usual, we were on an upper floor of a tall condo building. The dilapidated lobby and elevator weren't encouraging, but the apartment itself was clean, modern, and spacious. It was also furnished rather ostentatiously with matching faux Victorian living room and bedroom sets. China is never short of surprises.
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By the time we got ourselves out of the apartment the next morning the heat and humidity had already become oppressive. Our apartment complex was a typical Chinese block of modern high-rises amidst a mostly flat expanse of enormous boulevards. We had a noodle breakfast and took a short walk around our immediate neighborhood. I found an unusual pair of sandals with a drawstring-type closure and we built our own salad at a small produce market. Unfortunately when the salad bar owner tossed our selections with seasonings I was too late to stop her from throwing a huge spoonful of salt into the mix, which rendered the final product virtually inedible.
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Across the street from our apartment complex is Tianjin's Ancient Culture Street, which is a very touristy rendition of an old commercial street with early 20th century styled buildings which now house various retail establishments. While much of it was schlock, there were enough stores devoted to genuine local artisanry to keep us entertained for a couple of hours.
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I wandered into one small shop whose proprietor was serving various alcoholic drinks in small clay saucers. He demonstrated that once I drank the contents of the saucer, I should heave it against the far wall of the shop. Indeed, there was a huge pile of broken saucers at the bottom of the wall. Mei Ling joined me and we selected some rice-derived moonshine for ourselves and plum juice for the kids, and we all took a turn at heaving our saucers at the wall except for Ian who managed to drop his on the floor immediately.
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Our last adventure on Ancient Cultural Street was trying nitro puffs for the first time. I'm not sure how liquid nitrogen became a part of ancient Chinese culture but it was a fun experience for everyone.

We walked back east and soon found ourselves at the western bank of the Hai River, a wide channel that flows through the center of Tianjin before emptying into Bohai Bay. The other side of the river looked to have the most activity so we set across the bridge that stretched out in front of us. The bridge was lined with snack vendors who were cooking with rickety-appearing propane tanks. To the north we could see the red arch of the Jingang Bridge and behind that the huge Ferris wheel called Tianjin Eye. On the south side of the bridge locals were diving acrobatically into the river from a concrete esplanade.
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We walked south along the esplanade which was an excellent way to see the mixture of classical buildings and modern skyscrapers that Tianjin had to offer. The beauty and variety of styles of the many bridges was reminiscent of Bilbao.
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The esplanade seemed to be a beloved place for locals to walk, ride bicycles, and enjoy amateur street performances. In the space of an hour we encountered a saxophone player, an operatic dance, and groups of middle aged locals dancing and marching for exercise. Our kids were thrilled to be able to join in the last of these activities. The best part is that nothing felt like it was manufactured for tourism, mainly because there were hardly any tourists there except for other Chinese. It was just people getting outside on a pleasant summer evening to relax and do the things they loved.

As Tianjin slipped into darkness the river promenade remained brightly illuminated by streetlamps and strategically-placed floodlights. Buildings and bridges acquired an unearthly and beautiful glow. The skyscrapers to the south were also artfully highlighted, their geometric outlines encased in rectangles and parabolas of light. It was as though the entire city had been engineered to create a nocturnal spectacle.
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Our evening's journey ended at the Italian Style Street, a touristy development at the site of the former Italian concession. The area was renovated into its current form and opened to the public in 2008 to coincide with the Beijing Olympics. Contrary to its name, the area is actually a small cluster of cobblestone streets with a few older buildings but nothing that struck me as particularly Italian in character. Of the many international restaurants on the main pedestrian street, only a few were Italian. We ultimately settled on a French restaurant called La Seine which proved to be extraordinarily good. It's hard to compare French with Chinese cuisine, but it was certainly one of the more enjoyable meals of our six week trip.
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We had barely noticed how far we had walked to our final destination but the prospect of returning on foot after our huge meal was very unappealing. Mei Ling hailed a cab with her Chinese ridesharing app and we returned to the apartment very satisfied with our first evening in Tianjin. Despite the city's lack of international recognition, the walk along the Hai River had been one of the most interesting and pleasurable experiences of the trip so far.

I wish I could say that our first evening in Tianjin was just a taste of what the city had in store for us, but it turned out to be the high point of our three day stay. The next morning we took a long taxi ride to the southern part of the city to hunt for a seafood market I had read about on a travel blog. In general there was a surprising absence of food markets in central Tianjin and this was my only lead after extensive searching. When we finally arrived after much driver confusion we found a wholesale market that had only a few vendors among an array of deserted warehouses, and no retail customers in sight. It was a complete wash, and it took quite a while for Mei Ling to find a driver on her Chinese app to get us out of there. The driver took us to a seafood restaurant which was somewhat a fish market in its own right, so we were able to get the food we wanted if not the experience.
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One of China's special qualities is that it has some of the most beautiful city parks I've ever visited. I love discovering the creative landscaping, secluded paths, and serene lakes of these urban oases. The parks in Dalian and Beijing had been particularly awesome. Tianjin's largest park is called Water Park because most of the surface area is comprised of two enormous lakes separated by a chain of islands connected by bridges. On the way to the park I saw an unfinished skyscraper from the window of the taxi. There were no other buildings around it which made it hard to judge its height but it seemed gigantic. The taxi driver told Mei Ling that it was the Goldin Finance 117 tower and it had been under construction since 2008. It was originally supposed to be completed in 2014 but construction has been suspended multiple times due to lack of financing. If the building is completed as scheduled in 2020, it will be the fifth tallest in the world at 1959 feet. My photo from the taxi window through the smog doesn't do the building justice so I stole an aerial picture from this awesome skyscraper message board.
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When we arrived at Water Park we took a wrong entrance and ended up at the adjacent Zhou Enlai Memorial. Zhou is revered in China for his role in the Chinese Civil War and his position as the first premier of the People's Republic of China. It wasn't really our kind of place but the kids got a kick out of touring the airplane that Zhou received as a gift from Stalin.
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Once we figured out how to get to Water Park it did not disappoint. At the northern end of the park was a Bonsai Garden with a classical Chinese pavilion. The kids were amazed by the miniature trees and Cleo was very skeptical when I told her they were regular trees that had been trimmed very carefully over years.
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The trail over boardwalks and bridges from the north to the south side of the park was truly remarkable. We were surrounded on every side by tranquil lakes and lush vegetation, yet on the other side of the water was the imposing urban landscape of Tianjin. The park wasn't as meticulously maintained as People's Park in Dalian but it was just as beautiful in its own way.
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On the way back to the center of town we drove around the Tianjin Radio and Television Tower, which is the eighth tallest freestanding tower in the world. For a city that is barely on the tourism radar, Tianjin has a surprising number of visually arresting sights.
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Tianjin is another city that has largely lost its night markets, if it ever had any. Our research uncovered a couple of food streets, but they proved to be a pale imitation of true night markets. They were more similar to Ancient Cultural Street with lonely vendors selling traditional snacks in a largely deserted cavernous building.
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It was dark by the time we arrived at Minyuan Stadium, a former sports arena which is now a multipurpose space for artistic performances, boutiques, and restaurants. In front of the Neoclassical entrance arch was a sports monument that had a large installation of illuminated piano keys arranged around it. Dozens of kids were jumping on the keys which caused them to blink and change colors. Inside the stadium people were congregated on the concrete bleachers even though there was nothing happening on the small stage at the center except for a few kids skateboarding. Inside the covered archways was a somewhat sterile but crowded night market devoted to crafts and artisanal foods. As we left the stadium we encountered a crowd watching middle-aged Chinese women dancing to Irish-sounding music being played by Chinese men with harmonica and bongo drums. China seems to have become one of the world's foremost cultural melting pots even without having much of a foreign community. We had dinner at a steakhouse in Minyuan Stadium but couldn't recreate the magic from the previous night at the French restaurant. The steaks were tough and greasy despite the Western prices.

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We started our last day in Tianjin with a walk up the Western bank of the Hai to the Yongle Bridge, where we bought tickets for an evening ride on the Tianjin Eye. On the way we noticed that many of the trees had what looked like a large open insect cocoon nailed to their trunks. We were unable to think of a reason why anyone would do this, nor could I find out anything online afterwards.
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We spent most of the day in the Heping District of central Tianjin. The Porcelain House is a large mansion in the French Concession area whose current owner has decorated it with thousands of porcelain jars and porcelain vases. It reminded me a lot of the Dickeyville Grotto in Wisconsin, an odd convergence of Eastern and Western aesthetics. It was quite an interesting and beautiful structure, but it was also a quite expensive tourist trap so we took photos outside and moved on.
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We took a long walk southeast towards another Tianjin landmark, St. Joseph's Cathedral. On the way we encountered a large shopping mall with several food courts which had much better offerings than the touristy official food streets. With full stomachs we pressed onward to the cathedral, which turned out to be a pleasantly symmetric red and white-striped confection. The hundred-year-old Roman Catholic church was constructed from bricks shipped from France and seemed quite incongruous against a backdrop of drab modern highrises.
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At this point we were relatively close to Minyuan Stadium so we decided to take another look during the day time. On the way we passed a barbershop and all three of us boys got our hair cut under the watchful eye of Mei Ling.
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The area around Minyuan Stadium is called Wu Da Dao, or Five Great Avenues. The area is known for its many Western style buildings that were built during the concession era in the early 20th century. During the day we found the stadium and surroundings to be almost completely deserted. We walked around the immediate area and didn't see any buildings that were particularly remarkable. Tourists were being loaded into horse-drawn carriages for tours of the area but we decided we'd already seen enough Western style buildings at Badaguan in Qingdao.
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The time had come for us to return to the Tianjin Eye for our scheduled ride. The enormous Ferris Wheel was already illuminated in the gathering dusk. There was a long line of people who already had tickets but Mei Ling was somehow able to negotiate with a security guard to get us past the bulk of it. Even so we had to wait on a very slow moving line for more than an hour after our ride was supposed to have begun. Eventually we got on the wheel which also turned excruciating slowly. It took forty minutes to complete the revolution by which time the kids were totally bored and jumping around the small cabin. Thanks to the many tall condo buildings in the area, the view from the top wasn't that much better than it had been from the ground. Of all the things we had done in Tianjin, riding the Eye had certainly been the least worthwhile.
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For our last dinner in Tianjin I had a lead on a place called Shiyue Food Street in the Hebei District on the east side of the river. I'd only found one mention of it so I wasn't sure it really existed, but fortunately our taxi driver knew exactly where it was. There weren't many restaurants open on the street but at least it was outdoors and crowded. It was the only authentic night market we found in Tianjin.
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We had now been to the five largest cities in China and Tianjin was by far the least impressive, which explains why Tianjin is barely a blip on the tourist radar. I was still happy we'd visited, mainly for the experience of walking alongside the Hai River and eating at the Italian Style Town. However, there was nothing else about Tianjin that particularly stood out even when compared to smaller cities like Dalian or Shenyang. I think Tianjin is best visited as an overnight trip from Beijing so that the evening can be enjoyed on the river and perhaps a visit to Ancient Cultural Street or Water Park in the morning before returning. And definitely, for sure, skip the Tianjin Eye.

Posted by zzlangerhans 04:07 Archived in China Tagged travel market china blog tianjin tony friedman Comments (2)

East Asian Immersion: Beijing part III


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For our second stint in Beijing we decided to stay to the west of the center, in the Haidian District. We had a suite in an upscale business hotel that we'd been provided with by one of Mei Ling's friends from the Chinese community in Miami.
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On our first night back we only had time to visit Qianmen Street, a pedestrianized shopping street just south of Tiananmen Square. Almsot all the stores had already closed, but it was cool to see some of Beijing's most famous gates and forts illuminated in the stillness of the night. It was the closest we would come to a Western tourist's experience in Beijing.
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In the morning I saw that we were within walking distance of an interesting-looking park called Yuyuantan Park, which takes its name from the large pond that occupies most of its area. Although Beijing is one of the largest cities in the world not to be built near any major river or coastline, it contains many canals and small lakes which are sourced from natural springs. Many of the park lakes are connected by the canals and there is even a boat that can take you from the Beijing Zoo to the Summer Palace five miles away. Yuyuantan is also connected to one of the canals that eventually leads to the Summer Palace. When we arrived at the west entrance to the park and looked out over the pond it was hard to believe we were still in the center of Beijing. We were almost the only passengers on a good-sized boat that ferried us to the narrow strip of land in the center of the pond that supports the steep marble bridge.
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Yuyuantan Park was a good example of why it's sometimes better to toss away one's guidebook and let Google Maps help you explore a city. While most of the Western tourists in Beijing were slogging and sweating their way around the Forbidden City that morning, we were enjoying a leisurely walk through lush greenery surrounded by water. Everywhere around us were the rhythms of daily life in Beijing, from locals strolling with umbrellas to the elderly men taking a dip in the pond. In the distance we could appreciate the hypodermic elegance of the CCTV tower.
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We continued our exploration of modern Beijing at Wukesong, a neighborhood that's only known to Westerners for its large market for second-hand camera equipment. The area is now the site of a large outdoor mall with upscale restaurants and boutiques. We found an outpost of a chain restaurant that specialized in whole broiled fish smothered in savory sauces.
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A welcome surprise at the mall was an exhibition of sculpture by an artist named Wang Yi, about whom I could find nothing in the English language internet. His compositions featured bald, middle-aged men in apparently uncomfortable situations such as being attached to puppet strings or tightly packed into a monument. Placards in front of the sculptures provided rather abstract, inoffensive explanations of their meanings. Perhaps it was just my unconscious bias at play, but I couldn't escape the impression that the artist was engaged in a subtle protest of totalitarianism. What could be more subversive than tricking your oppressor into celebrating your defiance by misrepresenting its true message?
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The mall also featured long, tubular slides that never would have been insurable in the United States. They were accompanied by long lists of rules in the inimitable Chinese style such as "The drunk is not allowed to take part in this game."
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We spent much of the afternoon at an acrobatic show that Mei Ling's friends had given her tickets to. Some of the stunts were truly terrifying, as were the apparent ages of the performers. Mei Ling ran into some of the girl acrobats during intermission who claimed to be teenagers but looked much younger. They told her they had been exclusively training and touring with the troupe since they were ten years old, but we suspected they had probably started at age seven or younger. Outside the kids got to hang out with one of the older acrobats who was taking a smoking break.
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We still hadn't visited all the food streets in central Beijing and the most promising of the ones that were left seemed to be Huguosi. We were fortunate to encounter one of the local specialties at the first storefront we came to. Beijing yogurt can be recognized by the distinctive white ceramic jars with blue cow labels. We meandered down the colorful street and eventually settled on a skewer restaurant where the highlight was perfectly-crisped chicken feet. Huguosi had a more authentic feel than Nanluoguxiang and was much more focused on food rather than shopping or souvenirs.
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The next morning we took the metro way out northeast almost to the 5th Ring Road to meet yet another of Mei Ling's friends at the 798 Art Zone. I had fond memories of this unique art district that had arisen from the occupation of a complex of abandoned factories and warehouses in the mid 1990's. There was still a lot to see in terms of sculpture and street art, but 798 had changed a great deal since my last visit eleven years earlier. I remembered large galleries that were full of beautiful abstract art and so few visitors that the staff often accompanied me around the exhibits to answer any questions I had. The area was much more crowded now, with many Westerners, and a large industry of coffee shops and various forms of tack. The galleries were smaller and more numerous, and many had given over space to selling things like posters and T-shirts. We searched in vain for the inspiring displays that I remembered and then succumbed to the growing impatience of the children with our efforts.
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In the evening we hooked up with more Chinese contacts for a banquet at a Yunnanese restaurant in the Wudaokou neighborhood. I wasn't that impressed with the food, but the design of the restaurant and the epicurean market upstairs was very appealing.
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Back at the hotel I saw Cleo preoccupied with the pen and notepad while the two boys were watching TV. We were busy packing and I didn't pay her much attention. In the morning I came across the pad on my desk and I was shocked to see that Cleo had started her own travel journal. She had recently been asking questions about my blog but I hadn't realized how interested she was. Sometimes I wonder if I've surrendered to some kind of delusion by making travel one of our family's highest priorities. I've thought that perhaps our kids would be better off spending the summers at camp with friends instead of being dragged around to places they're too young to appreciate. Seeing my seven year old starting to click not just with the joy of travel, but the idea of sharing her experiences with the world was a true epiphany that reassured me that I haven't lost my mind after all. I also had to remind myself not to underestimate my daughter. Before long I think she's going to be taking over this blog.
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On the way to the airport we passed one of the strangest skyscrapers I've ever seen, which in Asia is saying a lot. Thanks to the internet I learned it's the tallest tower of Pangu Plaza and the curvaceous upper floors are intended to resemble the head of a dragon. In 2016 the building was seized from a billionaire real estate developer as part of a corruption crackdown and it is now the Chinese headquarters for IBM.
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As it turned out this would be our last sight of Beijing on this trip. We had planned to return for another stay in Beijing after Japan but events took us in another direction. We didn't make it to a couple of the food streets on my list but after experiencing Nanluoguxiang and Huguosi I doubt we missed much. Beijing may be a better city now than it was in 2008 for a lot of people, but for travelers like us it has lost much of its appeal and I really don't know if or when we'll be back. We boarded our plane with great anticipation for our first visit to Japan since Cleo was a baby.

Posted by zzlangerhans 11:28 Archived in China Tagged travel china beijing blog tony night_market friedman wukesong huguosi yuyuantan Comments (6)

East Asian Immersion: Dalian part III


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I normally fit about two days of travel into a blog post, sometimes three, so it's strange to find myself working on my third blog post about the four days we spent in Dalian. I never expected there to be so much worth seeing and so many opportunities to take great pictures in this unheralded city. I'm not usually a history buff but I was motivated to look into Dalian's past to try to understand how it became such a unique place. I learned that thanks to its strategic location on the Bohai Strait, Dalian passed through a number of powerful hands in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The British, the Russians, and the Japanese all controlled the city between 1858 and 1945. There are still some architectural remnants of these occupations in the city, but I couldn't see how that distant past had much influence on the fascinating landscape of modern Dalian. Fortunately I have the best research resource a traveler could ask for, my Chinese-born wife, who could provide more insight into this recent transformation than a hundred hours on the internet.

Dalian's location and history of occupation probably made it a mildly interesting city to visit in the 1980's, but its captivating skyscrapers, squares, and parks are a much more recent development. Essentially all of this can be laid at the feet of one formerly illustrious mayor of the city, Bo Xilai. Bo was a scion of a prominent Communist Party family which was purged during the Cultural Revolution. He emerged from a labor camp in the 1980's and worked his way back into the Party, now that the pendulum had swung in another direction. Despite an apparent lack of connection to Dalian or Liaoning Province, Bo was assigned to a government position in the area and worked his way up through party ranks to become the mayor of Dalian in 1992. He oversaw the construction of Xinghai Square at the site of the former city garbage dump and was also responsible for the creation of Labor Park and several museums. In 2001 Bo became governor of Liaoning and in 2007 he ascended to the highest level of the Chinese central government. Between 2007 to 2011, he was the most prominent rising political star in China and many assumed he was on his way to being president. All of that ended in 2011 with a murder scandal that led to uncovering of widespread corruption and eventually life imprisonment. It seems that during Bo's few years of enormous power he decided to make Dalian a showplace of modernization, likely intending to use the city as a staging ground for a run at the presidency. Once he was a member of the Politburo, Bo likely diverted domestic financial resources to Dalian and also was involved in numerous foreign investment deals which led to the enormous number of skyscrapers that are still being built. Whether the city can sustain its growth now that its benefactor has been disgraced remains to be seen. It seems impossible that there would be enough wealthy citizens and businesses to fill all the new skyscrapers, so perhaps Dalian is destined to become a futuristic ghost town. I feel fortunate to have been able to see the city in possibly its greatest moment.

We kicked off our last full day in the food court of a Chinese department store not far from Eton Place. I'd seen how China was developing these food courts along the model of Japan and Korea two years earlier in Mudanjiang, but the size and sophistication of this display was quite impressive. There was a mouth-watering selection of produce, delicatessen items, and freshly-prepared fast food that was fundamentally Chinese but had enough international spin to generate a cosmopolitan atmosphere. Just as striking was the liveliness and amount of foot traffic in the food court despite the relatively high prices. Ten years ago a scene like this would have been hard to imagine outside of Shanghai.
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We had a long bus ride through the southern part of Dalian to the Laohutan Scenic Area. This part of the peninsula is filled with stocky little mountains that have residential communities packed into the narrow valleys between them. It wasn't unusual to see apartment buildings jammed up against steep hillsides and I wondered how safe they were from landslides.
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The bus dropped us off in front of Laohutan Ocean Park, an expensive theme park that contains an aquarium and a coral museum and features live performances with marine mammals. We had one of the world's most renowned aquariums coming up soon in Osaka so we gave the theme park a pass and walked across the bridge over the Ziyou Canal towards the famous sculpture that gives the area its popular name of Tiger Beach. The enormous marble tigers seemed to be leaping through the evergreens at the base of the hillside. A couple of souvenir vendors were demonstrating a styrofoam model plane and didn't seem to mind when the kids took it over. From the hill above us cable cars were transporting tourists across Laohutan Bay to the aquarium.
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Close to the tiger sculpture is the entrance to Bird Singing Woods, which is part of Laohutan Ocean Park but has a much more reasonable entry price as an individual attraction. This is a quite impressive bird park housing thousands of birds on a steep hill covered in netting. There are apparently 150 different species of birds in the park, but the most prominent were guinea hens, spoonbills, and peacocks. Feeding the birds was encouraged, naturally with the birdseed that was on sale inside the park. The birds were quite experienced and aggressive and our kids were no match for them.
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Most of the visitors stayed at the base of the hill but we followed the path to the top where the peacocks were clearly in charge. Even with their tails closed, these are incredibly beautiful birds and there were an amazing number of them perched on branches and railings. The netting filtered and diffused what little sunlight made it through the clouds and it was easy to forget that we were in a bird sanctuary and not atop a mountain far from civilization.
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Back on ground level we were just in time to catch a show with parrots that were trained to fly into the crowd and ferry bank notes from the audience back to their handler. The combination of entertainment and con-artistry was quintessentially Chinese and I was happy to contribute all the small denomination currency I had to the endeavor.

The coastal drive through the mountains along Binhai Middle Road is supposed to be another highlight of Dalian, but we didn't see anything remarkable from the windows of our taxi. Eventually we found ourselves back at Xinghai Square, where we ate dinner at a Japanese restaurant and let the kids have another round of entertainment in the amusement park. It was a much foggier evening than our previous visit and the skyscrapers seemed like ghostly apparitions in the mist.
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On our first visit to Xinghai Square we'd missed the evening light show at the fountain. As the moment approached, people began streaming to the center of the oval where there was an enormous circular pool. The water jets had already started to shoot into the air, illuminated in vivid colors and accompanied by haunting violin music. I tried to hold the kids back, expecting the crowd to become too dense for safety, but they were able to get all the way to the front. As the fog slowly lifted, the sparkling, disembodied cables of the Xinghaiwan Bridge came into view behind us.
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We had finally worn the kids out and by the time we had found our way back to Zhongyuan food street for a late snack the older two were out cold. In the morning we went straight to the airport for our flight to Qingdao. Mei Ling stopped briefly at a cosmetics counter at the mall in Eton Place where the salesperson's T-shirt provided us with an optimistic farewell from one of the most fascinating cities I've ever visited.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 21:46 Archived in China Tagged travel china liaoning dalian travel_blog laohutan xinghai_square tony_friedman zzlangerhans Comments (0)

East Asian Immersion: Dalian part II


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We awoke on our second morning in Dalian highly energized to continue our exploration of this dynamic and unpredictable city. We'd already seen the major municipal produce market, but we found a smaller one in the opposite direction from Eton Place. I don't think I could ever get enough of the colorful celebration of our earth's variety of fruits and vegetables that a Chinese market presents. We've embraced that variety at home as well as when we travel. Fortunately in Miami we have access to probably 90% of the common edible fruits and we have about thirty of them in our regular rotation. One special attribute of China is the huge selection of green vegetables that gives every meal an individual imprint, and that diversity was on full display here as well.
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We had a lunch of barbecued lamb in a Uyghur restaurant incongruously located on Dalian's famed Japanese street. The street itself was a rather unimpressive collection of seedy bars with Japanese-style fronts, but the food made the detour worthwhile.
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Labor Park, or Lao Dong in Chinese, is the largest city park in Dalian. I enjoy taking the kids to parks when we travel because they're beautiful places where we can join with the locals in recreational activities. Labor Park was a real stunner, carefully maintained with colorful landscaping and intriguing paths. One of the first paths we came to was a beautiful, striped golden walkway that I tried to convince the kids was the Yellow Brick Road from the Wizard of Oz. Cleo is too old now to be tricked so easily and quickly noticed there were no bricks. The lush vegetation was complemented by the diverse and magnificent skyscrapers that surrounded the park.
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Labor Park was magical in many ways. Aside from the glorious landscapes, we encountered many groups of locals engaged in various artistic activities purely for their own pleasure. In one pavilion a group of middle-aged people were dancing to traditional music and they were happy to let our kids join in. Just a short distance away another group was dancing with colorful silk scarves and they very amicably encouraged the kids to join them in that activity as well. Next were two very ordinary-looking guys performing a synchronized hip-hop style modern dance to Chinese music with very serious faces. Were they practicing for some kind of a performance, or was that just their way of getting exercise? One thing for sure they weren't doing was putting on a show for tourists, as we were the only Westerners we saw in the park that day and no one else was paying the them the slightest attention. These kinds of sights are common in Chinese parks but we've never encountered such a diversity of performances in one place as we did in Labor Park. It was great to see our kids having so much fun and at the same time having a completely natural immersion in one of their ancestral cultures.
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From the park we walked towards the center of downtown Dalian. On the way we encountered a seafood restaurant where we had the most delicious plate of boiled crawfish I've ever tasted, with all due respect to Louisiana. The garlic seasoning and the firm texture of the crustaceans were incomparable.
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We passed through Youhao Square where a giant spherical sculpture rests on five upturned hands, intended to signify the solidarity of five continents. I'm not sure if it was Australia or another continent that was excluded.
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The ultimate destination of our walk was Zhongshan Square, a major downtown hub that is representative of Dalian's evolution from a Russian outpost to a Japanese colony to a modern Chinese metropolis. The square was initially constructed by the Russians at the end of the 19th century, but most of the buildings adjacent to the square were constructed by the Japanese. These buildings have all been repurposed by the Chinese as banks and government offices, and sleek modern skyscrapers now form an interesting backdrop on every side.
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At one corner of the square a guy in army fatigues was selling packages of bird seed. The pigeons in the square were fearless and flew onto the kids' palms, shoulders and heads much to their delight. A group of young people arrived in the square for a modeling shoot and asked Mei Ling if they could include our kids in some of the photos. Spenser turned out to be a natural.
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We were still far from finished with the magic of Dalian. Little Venice is the popular name for a development that is officially known as Montage de L'Eau, on the northern shore of Dalian facing Dalian Bay. Little Venice seeks to provide the experience of Venice including copies of some of its most famous buildings as well as canals and gondolas. Foreigners often disparage the Chinese penchant for copying or mimicking Western monuments and landmarks, but I think it is an area where East and West simply fail to see eye to eye. The Chinese don't feel they have taken something away from its originators by copying it, but rather they perceive it more as a tribute. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, if you will. As far as I'm concerned it's just something interesting to experience and I don't feel any need to make judgments about it. Montage de L'Eau was completed just a few years ago and is fairly unknown outside of Dalian. The bus dropped us off fairly close to the entrance where we were greeted with the familiar site of vast, shiny skyscrapers that were in the final stages of construction.
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If it hadn't been for the gondoliers and the knockoff of the bell tower for St. Mark's Basilica, I wouldn't have known that Dalian was going for a Venice impression at all. The feeling was more like any number of modern cities with canals or downtown rivers, like San Antonio or Chicago. Many of the buildings had a neo-Classical appearance but didn't look particularly Venetian, and they were set back from the canals rather than bathing in them. It was a very beautiful place on its own merits and we enjoyed crossing the bridges and exploring the canalside pathways.
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Of course gondola rides were on offer, and at a substantial discount to the ones available in the original Venice. The kids enjoyed being on the boat but the water was too still and the surroundings too tranquil for the ride to add much to the experience for me. Little Venice was a enchanting place in its own right but was in no way comparable to the breathtaking original.
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It tuned out there was much more to the area we were in than Little Venice. We exited on the opposite side and found ourselves on a wide, landscaped promenade that coursed along Dalian Bay. Little Venice posed gaily behind us in the shadow of the new skyscrapers we had seen earlier.
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We walked west along the busy promenade until we reached the end of Montage de L'Eau, where there were several other interesting buildings including an apparent replica of the Arc de Triomphe. We kept walking past the port until we reached Dalian's strange clam-like convention center.
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By now dusk was falling and it was time to head to our third night market in Dalian, back near Xinghai Square. It was pleasant enough but didn't have same energy as the other two we'd visited. Another exciting and magical day in Dalian had come to an end.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 13:01 Archived in China Tagged travel kids china family liaoning dalian travel_blog little_venice zhonghsan_square Comments (2)

East Asian Immersion: Dalian part I


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I was completely unfamiliar with the city of Dalian until I was on my eighth visit to China, so I think it's safe to say that the vast majority of Westerners have never heard of it. Even after being to China so many times, the only way I came across Dalian was by studying a map to better understand my location when I was visiting the equally unknown city of Shenyang. Every time I visit China I become a little more familiar with its geography, but there's always another level of detail to investigate. While reviewing Shenyang's surroundings, I realized that the province of Liaoning had a rather striking coastline that resembled a closed hand with its index finger extended to point southward into the sea. About halfway along the index finger peninsula, a much smaller peninsula projected eastward almost like a wart on the back of the finger. Most of this wart was comprised by the only sizable city in the region, which was Dalian. I immediately felt an attraction to the city due to its remoteness from other metropolitan centers and its obvious intimate relationship with the sea. Mei Ling told me she had never been there, but Dalian had a good reputation in China as a vacation spot. I placed it on my ever-lengthening list of places to visit without expecting we would get there just two years later.
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After we decided we would base ourselves in Beijing for summer vacation and visit nearby cities, Dalian was one of the obvious destinations. It is accessible from Beijing by train in about five hours or by plane in an hour and a half. Since our Airbnb in Beijing was at the doorstep of the Airport Express train, we decided to fly. Our Airbnb in Dalian was a significant upgrade from Beijing, a 23rd floor condo in a complex of massive skyscrapers in the center of the city called Eton Place. One of Mei Ling's oldest friends, Guo Guo, flew in from Guangzhou and stayed with us in Dalian.
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Once we were settled in our Airbnb we set off for the closest night market we had researched. The supposed night markets had all disappointed us in Beijing and we were hoping for a better experience in Dalian. Our condo complex was surrounded by wide avenues with never-ending streams of speeding cars which could often only be traversed via underpasses. Our unfamiliarity with the location of the underpasses forced us off course and into new and fascinating discoveries. The most visually striking feature of the city was the futuristic skyscrapers, some of which were as tall as the Empire State Building in New York City. In fact they appeared even taller as they generally stood some distance from the other tall buildings, unlike in New York City which looks like a forest of skyscrapers. The most amazing were the tallest tower in our home base of Eton Place, currently the 42nd tallest building in the world, and Dalian International Trade Center, currently the 49th. The International Trade Center was useful as a landmark as it could be seen from practically anywhere near the center of the city. The five tallest buildings in Dalian were all completed within the last five years, and sixteen of the tallest twenty within the last decade. It was clear that Dalian had recently undergone a remarkable transformation.
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Zhongyuan Food Street was the epitome of a Chinese night market with an enormous variety of food choices along a single colorful, throbbing street. The first restaurant we encountered boasted a large array of tanks with every imaginable type of seafood. The hawker at the front was eager to keep our interest and showed the kids around the tanks, eventually letting them play with a live octopus.
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Sadly for the hawker, we weren't about to sit down at the first restaurant we saw. We gradually weaved our way through the crowd, marveling at the vast selection of skewers, small plates, fresh fruit, and live seafood restaurants that lined the sides of the street. It was a scene that couldn't be found anywhere in the world except China (and Taiwan).
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We eventually settled on a live seafood place and gave our orders at the tanks. We decided on live octopus, blood clams and tairagai clams, an unfamiliar fish whose named translated to "young lady", and sea intestines. Sea intestines are a bizarre life form that bears an uncanny resemblance to human guts.

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Mei Ling requested the octopus to be prepared raw, which meant that the chopped tentacles were still squirming when the dish was brought to the table. Contrary to popular belief, this does not mean the octopus was still alive. However, the nerves to the tentacles still function for a while even after the head and brain are detached. Naturally it's revolting to many people but it's far from the most shocking thing I've eaten. We offered it to Cleo and Spenser but only Spenser could be convinced to try it.

In the morning we went to the main market within walking distance of our apartment. It was a large complex with warehouse-type buildings devoted to seafood, meat, and produce. The meat section was particularly overwhelming with dozens of stalls tightly packed together and the sounds of cleavers chopping through thick cow and pig bones. The smell of freshly slaughtered animals and offal was heavy in the air, and motorbikes and loading equipment zipped through the narrow aisles with wild abandon.
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The outdoor sections were largely devoted to fruit and spices. At one point, a vendor good-naturedly lifted a corner of his canopy to allow a large SUV to turn the corner. We spent most of the morning in the market and the adjacent shopping center, where we engaged in a fruitless quest to locate a magnetic backgammon set. Another interesting discovery were small green melons that had been grown in Buddha-shaped molds.
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In the afternoon we took the bus to Xinghai Square, a relatively new feature of Dalian that has been described as the largest city square in the world. Across from the bus stop was either a small park or a large lawn inexplicably adorned with the figures of a giant bulldog, a young Buddhist monk, and three enormous fish designed to look like hedges. None of us had any idea what the tableau was intended to signify and there was nothing around to provide any clue what we were looking at. Over the next few days we were going to become accustomed to these whimsical sights around Dalian.
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Xinghai Square is a lot of things, but city square is not one of them. There isn't anything resembling a city near the enormous grassy oval, which is surrounded on most of its perimeter by tall, ultramodern apartment buildings and hotels. Despite the apparent housing for tens of thousands of people, the expanse between them was empty except for occasional pedestrians strolling towards the waterfront. Each of the many entrances to the oval was flanked by aerodynamic mesh sculptures of athletes engaged in different sports.
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The south-facing portion of Xinghai Square is the only break in the ring of skyscrapers. Between the oval and the waterfront is an elevated, curved platform that reminded me of the roof of the Oslo Opera House. It's called the Open Book monument, although it looks a lot more like a skateboard ramp than a book. Furthering the confusion is a bronze statue of a skateboarder on one of the monument's staircases, although there were no actual skateboarders on the book and I highly doubt the security guards would have looked favorably on that kind of activity.
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The waterfront area was quite crowded and fun. We admired the profile of the Xinghaiwan Bridge that crossed the bay while the kids chased a remote-controlled motorcycle around the concrete plaza. There was a good-sized amusement park adjacent to the plaza and we let the kids enjoy a few rides. Having a little time to process what I had been seeing, I was starting to realize I was in a very special and unusual place. This little corner of China was still too remote and insignificant to be of any interest to Western tourists, yet it was greatly appreciated by the Chinese and had acquired a peculiar hypermodern yet traditional aesthetic. I felt very fortunate to be witnessing this amazing transformation of a rural city into a unique modern metropolis.

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On the eastern side of Xinghai Square a canal extends from the bay inward towards the city. On the far side of the canal were some particularly ornate apartment buildings and a beautiful Gothic castle which we later learned was the ultra-expensive Castle Hotel.
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We headed back to the city and another busy night market for dinner. I learned how to get sea snails out of their narrow spiral shells and Cleo learned how difficult it is to pick up a quail egg with chopsticks. By the end of the night we'd already had more fun in Dalian than we'd had in five days in Beijing.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 15:37 Archived in China Tagged travel china family liaoning night_market dalian travel_blog xinghai_square tony_friedman Comments (2)

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